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Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

Alternately exciting and sluggish, Disney’s live action version of The Jungle Book, adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s adventure tales, ultimately succeeds as a matinee or home video adventure. Director Jon Favreau (Chef, Zathura, Cowboys & Aliens) has a knack for these types of daring movies and, with a few twists and reconfigurations of Walt Disney’s 1967 animated motion picture (read my movie and DVD review of the classic here), which this closely resembles with some modifications, The Jungle Book delivers generic entertainment.

Action scenes are too close up and jumbled. There’s a steadiness to the script by Justin Marks that lulls the audience into a kind of slumber and it sags between pulsating action sequences which pop up at expected intervals. Marks and Favreau make every plot point so predictable and safe that it depletes the wispy plot and characters of tension, depth and conflict.

JungleBook2016PosterMowgli (a debut by Neel Sethi) is a gangly kid left to make his way in the Asian jungle—the backstory comes into play—and, like Tarzan, Bomba and other human males among wild animals in exotic locations, he bonds with animals and nature. Disney’s original picture spun this coming of age tale with music and humor and, amid modern demands for new forms of excitement, there’s much less of both which doesn’t help. Baloo the layabout bear is voiced by Bill Murray (Aloha, St. Vincent, Ghostbusters), who is fine, and Bagheera the paternal black panther is voiced by Ben Kingsley (The Walk, Schindler’s List), who is also sufficient. The same goes for Idris Elba (TV’s Lucifer and Thor) as the villainous tiger Shere Khan, Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars, 12 Years a Slave) as the wolf and everyone else including the late Garry Shandling doing a voiceover, too.

No one, however, generates emotional power from the screenplay. Any moment or scene that comes close to achieving or earning an emotional response, such as when mother wolf must let the human boy leave the pack, falls flat or starts to swirl and then spins out with the next scene. This is through no fault of composer John Debney, whose score services the adventure movie even when it overwhelms what’s on screen. I think it’s partly caused by the Mowgli character, who is underplayed, the writing, which is underdeveloped, and Favreau’s direction, which is underdone. Finally, without animation, the computer generated setting is hyper-realistic which makes The Jungle Book visually arresting and thematically formulaic, contrasting stronger visuals with weaker characters, lines and themes.

For example, a cliched phrase about sticking together explicitly comes into Jungle Book about halfway through and is then put at the plot climax’s center, way out of proportion to its thin and poorly executed development, so the climax is less than credible or involving because it’s been more told than shown. Scarlett Johansson (Her) has a cameo as a snake and she unfortunately sings during the end credits which is almost as bad as Christopher Walken’s singing primate, who just about stops the movie’s plot momentum.

Despite the shortcomings, Mowgli’s interactions with elephants, trees and mentors, surrogate family and jungle inhabitants of all kinds is interesting and often thrilling, perhaps more so if you get a tickle from the animated version. Favreau almost always has a positive theme and The Jungle Book is no exception but it isn’t cohesively challenging and at times it’s barely interesting. Shere Khan’s relationship to the wolf pack, as provocatively depicted, parallels today’s Islamic terrorist threat—but it’s left dangling. Other promising points dissipate as well.

The 1967 version‘s loose, jaunty quality was tonic in the turbulent times of its release. In these more ominous times, remaking Kipling’s cautionary tales and layering them with tenderness, a sense of danger and an overarching theme of the outsider enshrouded with universal love is at once more realistic and more prosaic.

Available in 3D, I saw The Jungle Book without 3D glasses and I have no regrets.

Remembering Patty Duke

In the beginning of the 1960s, a child actress took the stage, screen and television ratings with remarkable creative and commercial success. Her name was Patty Duke. Sadly, the Academy Award-winning actress, pop singer and TV star of her own show died this week, apparently of sepsis. She was 69.

Courtesy of UPI

Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker/Courtesy of UPI

The life she lived before her unforgettable and groundbreaking performance as Helen Keller in the stage and film versions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was one of turbulence, alcoholism, depression, sexual assault and despair, a stream of child abuse which was a secret until the 1980s. The life she lived after her initial popularity and success carried a high price, too.

I think I first saw Patty Duke on a television game show. It was a 1970s CBS afternoon series titled Tattletales, a forerunner to today’s sordid and self-contradictory reality TV genre (in which nothing, in fact, is as it seems) and she would appear with other so-called celebrity couples with her then-husband, actor John Astin (The Addams Family). In retrospect, it was a flawed premise—it was maudlin—which was often uncomfortable and there is a sense in which Patty Duke, who was born as Anna Marie Duke and constantly struggled with her identity and self-esteem, became somewhat of an early reality TV star.

In fact, in a relevant prelude, Patty Duke had already been implicated in a TV scandal. She had admitted that, as a child star, she’d been given the answers in advance on a popular quiz show when quiz shows were the dominant non-fictional television genre. The genre never recovered from the scandal. But the quiz show scandal became a lesson in America’s cultural history from which Americans, many of whom currently keep up with TV sluts, nudes and bachelors and raise and pound fists at rallies for a TV fascist presidential candidate, have not learned.

Damage became part of Patty Duke’s brand as an actress and celebrity. From portraying Helen Keller in 1962 to playing a part based on Judy Garland in the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls (as doomed stage and movie star Neely O’Hara), with hit songs and her own hit sitcom—she was the youngest person to get her own show—in between, Patty Duke’s talent and success aligned with the turbulent times. What happened before and between playing larger than life opposites Keller and O’Hara was happening in the culture, too; from her portrayal of an American heroine in what Ayn Rand called her favorite epistemological play to starring as a hedonistic star, Patty Duke’s career matched America’s descent into the gutter. Her personal life was marred by semi-public instances of an extramarital affair, unwed pregnancy, addiction and suicide.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

That Patty Duke endured is an integral part of her heroism. The daughter of a manic depressive mother and an alcoholic father who was taken in by a couple who managed and, by her account, robbed and abused her triumphed over the era’s terrible secrets to continue to work and shine in an exceptional life. Patty Duke went on to write her memoirs (Call Me Anna), play the first woman president (Hail to the Chief), portray Martha Washington, and, memorably and powerfully, as Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in an excellent TV version of The Miracle Worker with Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. She had three sons and eventually fell in love with Michael Pearce, a sergeant she met while playing a woman in the military, marrying him and moving to an Idaho ranch.

Her son, Sean Astin, a fine actor himself, wrote this week that “Anna ‘Patty Duke’ Pearce passed away this morning March 29, 2016 at 1:20 a.m…She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed.”

For being an individual of ability and mastering her own damaged life—for choosing to take personal responsibility instead of hiding in fear, shame and repression—I know that I will miss Patty Duke, whom I had hoped to interview. Describing the petite actress as “fragile, tender and pained” when she auditioned for the role of Helen Keller, Arthur Penn, who directed Patty Duke both on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker, added that what distinguished Patty Duke was her “spark of liveliness.” What distinguishes her now, besides her talent, is that she chose to reignite it, protect it and never let it go out. May Anna rest in peace.

Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! purports to depict Texas college life in 1980 and comes up with a high-brow version of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). In fact, if you love Animal House, you’re likely to love this, too. But writer and director Richard Linklater’s college raunchfest is merely in the same genre as that college raunchfest and the films that followed (i.e., Porky’s). A gauzy climax, if it is one, and postscript are afterthoughts in a college fraternity fantasy.

Everybody-Wants-Some-POSTEREverything is tediously contrived in Everybody Wants Some!! which depicts a college baseball team just before the semester starts. Jamming punk, disco, rock and country pop into one movie about 1980, Linklater (Boyhood) cleverly and not so cleverly implants audio and visual signposts here and there, leading the batch of hooligans into a disco, country and western bar and punk club. It’s a meandering, aimless slice of life, with the boys playing with titties and relentlessly hazing one another and doing so with the jaded dialogue of a post-9/11 snarky late night host. None of this looks, sounds or feels realistic, despite the tube socks and other period touches (and the scene in the poster never happens, either). People didn’t say “Sup, dude” and “I get it! I get it!” and constantly snap lines at one another like the cast of Modern Family in 1980. The whole film feels like a laugh-tracked sitcom.

None of this would matter if the movie were about something other than a few days in the purposeless lives of wasted college students. That they are baseball players is incidental, really, because these hedonistic students could have been part of any fraternity of conformists who binge drink, smoke pot and engage in mindless sex. Theirs became the way of life of many if not most college students—this could be 1990, 2000, 2020—and, if future archaeologists dig up the rubble of where we’re heading and wonder how Americans ever fell under the spell of a nationalist like Trump or socialists like Clinton or Sanders, this movie will help them understand that, after the late 1960s and widespread acceptance of mindlessness ala Animal House, the most educated citizens mentally checked out, went blank and worshipped nothing—anything—whatever’s on TV or going on—mistaking that for Nirvana.

The best scenes involve baseball. The team finally shows up for a practice at mid-point in the picture. You almost get excited that something interesting will happen on screen besides the boredom of watching everybody get stoned, laid or hazed. But even this part—unless you think that pointing out that men are competitive is profound—gets down to crude vulgarity and ends in another asinine hazing action. The women are like blowup dolls, all long-haired, pouty and sex-starved airheads whether in a punk, country or disco joint. The music is ripped off the charts and none of it’s organically integrated, including and especially a scene in which the jocks all rap together in a car, which feels as era-authentic as jocks breaking into a show tune. Seriously, I kept thinking that the truest insight in this movie is that 1980 ushered in an era in which people stopped bothering to think and just wanted to feel—no wonder Americans are dumbed down to the point of accepting Trump—and go blank. This movie deals almost exclusively in this type of roaming, vacant emotionalism.

The worst part is that it pretends not to. It plays this game of pretend to make a point that college is not about college and it’s OK to party ’til you puke because you end up magically becoming human. In two droning hours, it celebrates just going along with the herd, trivializes free choice and mainstreams mindlessness.

Everybody Wants Some!! and, I suspect, Linklater, desperately wants the audience to think it’s sending up raunchy college days, because it’s wrapped up by a happy ending. Here, too, I foresee a boring marriage that ends up with a pair of stoned conformists, bearing children who mindlessly attend college, mindlessly tune out and seek to get stoned, laid or hazed, wafting into national socialism, feeling the Bern or some other mindless bandwagon. Like their parents. Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to stoke nostalgia. But it might have been called Nobody Wants Anything!! No single character demonstrates want of any value.

Through the final scenes, this picture, like Knocked Up and The Hangover, amounts to a generic plea for collectivism, whether through leftism or conservatism: join the party, get high and magically conform. Or: get stoned, blank out and fit in. If blankness or sameness could be a movie—dramatizing pre-mob mentality with pretentiousness; the antithesis of 1980’s Breaking Away—this is it.

Movie Review: I Saw the Light

ISawtheLightPosterFlawed and fragmented, but also layered and hypnotically absorbing, I Saw the Light, a movie about a country singer-songwriter in the previous century, is one of the better pictures in this biographically-oriented genre. Like last year’s inspiring Steve Jobs, it is an essentialized dramatization of a man’s historic life, not a journalistic account. As such, it is an insightful and moving—also relevant—portrait of a musical genius.

Ranging over certain points in his short life—and I knew little about this artist going in—I Saw the Light starts in the heart of Dixie. The year is 1944 and the scrawny young singer, portrayed by Tom Hiddleston (Thor, War Horse) is getting married to an attractive woman named Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen). Writer and director Marc Abraham focuses on exploring, as against showcasing, the enigma of Hank Williams. So what you get is a darkened story driven by his choices, goals and songs, in simple terms with simple themes of alcohol, women and music. Unlike 2005’s worthwhile Walk the Line, a fine but overstylized movie about country legend Johnny Cash, I Saw the Light, also titled after one of the artist’s tunes, probes and ponders what lies beneath the beauty of Hank Williams’ simplicity.

Hiddleston as Williams is magnetic, though he is older than Williams as depicted and this fact is distracting. Other problems include a narrative device that doesn’t work and a distinct deficit of making certain themes explicit through exposition of the music, which I Saw the Light skimps on. As Audrey, Olsen is uneven and it’s through no fault of Abraham’s, because the role is rich and both cast and casting are good. Cherry Jones as his mother, David Krumholtz as a daring reporter and Wrenn Schmidt as one of his fixations stand out. But it is Hiddleston as Hank Williams who leads and charges the picture. Those eyes like deep pools plead in pain, charm and cajole and, ultimately, wearily and achingly, express a benevolent wish for happiness that make his one of the screen’s most intelligent performances.

The complications of being an artist—of being a man—of being alive come through in this opaque portrait. Whether he’s getting fired for drunkenness, struggling to hang on to his marriage or balance ownership of his work with partnership in his business or just trying to be left alone to write a song, Williams is as vulnerable, combustible and self-destructive as the best (Elvis, Michael Jackson and Whitney come to mind). Hank Williams on paper sounds like a real cad and, as shown in this adaptation of a biography by Colin Escott, et al., he can be cutting and cruel.

But in these years after the world went to war, before the nation integrated the races, neatly pocketed with Hank Williams’ ability to tell stories through poetry and song and make people believe in something—he distinguishes country music by its sincerity—in the places of the American South, one unassuming yet passionate writer emerges as a unique mid-century American idol. The voice twangs and howls and speaks in simple, rhyming lines about the hardness of living life. It made me want to know, understand and appreciate Hank Williams, whom it’s said influenced the best of postwar popular music.

For this reason, as simply as Hank Williams wrote and sang a tune, I Saw the Light seeps in, echoes and lingers. The movie shows and tells the story of a sincere and serious man whose short and troubled days on earth made an indelible impact. The best pictures about real people offer an essentialized part of the person’s life that makes you want to think about the whole of that individual life. This one does that with simplicity and universality so you end up thinking about your own life in whole, too.

Goodnight, Earl Hamner

The rich and gentle drawl of Earl Hamner is gone tonight. The old writer, who kept an office on Ventura Boulevard here in the San Fernando Valley near my home—down the hill from where he lived with his wife, Jane, who survives him, and a property full of pets—died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hamner, who was 92 years old, is also survived by his children, Scott and Caroline.

earl1I met and interviewed Earl Hamner over 10 years ago in that office. He was one of my favorite people to interview because he was natural and unscripted, yet sharp and insightful. Everything came to him and talking about his past works invigorated him—he clearly enjoyed thinking about his work—and he wasn’t fussy and neurotic about this or that issue, problem or question, which is rare and refreshing. Earl Hamner was curious, bright and exuberant about his past, present and future. I think this comes across in the interview (read it here) which is one of my best. In this case, I am proud to say that I know Earl Hamner thought so, too, because he told me so and wrote it on his Web site.

We stayed in touch and met and talked about politics, Hollywood and writing projects and he was joyful every time. It wasn’t a put-on. Like his most enduring character, the mountain child John Boy Walton, who becomes a writer, Earl Hamner was a man whose poverty, family and wondrous life experience burnished on his mind, character and soul and, through his strength, idealism and fortitude, made him a soothing, generous and masterful storyteller of the American way. He is gone tonight and I know that I will miss this wonderful man, who was both passionate and kind but not too much of either. The writer leaves behind the treasure of his moving and meaningful stories well told—and a life well lived.


Interview with Scott Holleran: Earl Hamner (2005)